Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

This old nursery rhyme plays in my head whenever I read about the women who were at the cross when Jesus died, most of whom were named Mary (Matthew 27:55–56, Mark 15:40, and John 19:25).

To me, the most important one, and the only one named in all three accounts, was Mary Magdalene from the tiny fishing village of Magdala on the west side of the Sea of Galilee. Luke 8:2 and Mark 16:9 claim Mary had seven demons cast out of her. No one knows exactly what that means, but many scholars believe that the early church used seven demons as code for prostitute because the male leadership was intent on keeping women submissive. (What else is new?)

Some (me included) believe that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, while others suggest that she was a wealthy woman who helped finance Jesus’s ministry.

The second Mary listed in Matthew and Mark was identified as the mother of James and Joseph or Joses. Who? Mark 6:3 and Matthew 13:55–56 mention the brothers and sisters of Jesus, and interestingly, two were called James and Joseph or Joses. After Jesus’s death, James became a leader in the Jewish Jesus movement. Jesus’s other two brothers were Judas or Jude and Simon. Was this Mary the mother of Jesus? If so, why wouldn’t Matthew and Mark call her the mother of Jesus, like John did, and mention all the brothers? I think this was a different Mary. Besides, Mary the mother of Jesus lived in Nazareth, which was ten to fifteen walking days from Jerusalem.

John’s account also lists Mary of Clopas or Cleophas, who was reputed to be the wife or daughter of a man named Cleophas who met the “resurrected” Jesus on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13–27). Early church tradition claimed that this Mary was the sister of Mary the mother of Jesus and thus was Jesus’s aunt. Yikes! This is so convoluted.

The Bible mentions even more Marys.

Luke 10:38–42 tells the story of a “lazy” Mary who is the sister of busy Martha and Lazarus, who was supposedly raised from the dead after four days. (This story is really a metaphor.)

Acts 12:12 says another Mary was the mom of John Mark, a young man who traveled with Paul but later became homesick (or perhaps sick of Paul) and returned home. Maybe this Mark wrote the first Gospel.

The name Mary appears over fifty times in the New Testament. It was a popular name that most likely meant “loved” or “beloved.” What a beautiful meaning!

From the sixteenth century to the midtwentieth century, the name Mary was the most popular name for newborn girls in the English-speaking world. (For boys, it was John.) I wonder if associations with the Virgin Mary or the mother of the Christ come up when parents pick that name?

Maybe “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary” was originally about Jesus’s mother? When I read about her in the Gospels, I see this Mary as quite contrary, meaning “stubbornly opposed or willful.” She and Jesus apparently fell out at some point, as I discussed in a previous post.

How many Marys do you know?

Triptych of Jan Crabbe by Hans Memling is in the public domain courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art

Leave a Comment